A delegation of 150 Australian businesses are in China participating in the country’s first International Import Expo in Shanghai. The group is lead by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham who says Australia’s trade relations with China remain strong despite “strategic challenges”.
China’s open for business and here to help other countries grow – those were just some of the key messages of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s opening speech at China’s International Import Expo on Monday.
Speaking to a crowd of country leaders and government officials he touted China’s commitment to multilateral trade and globalisation.
“The CIIE is aimed at pushing for a new round of high-level opening-up, it is a major measure for China to take the initiative to open its market to the world,” President Xi said.
One hundred and 30 countries and regions are participating in the five-day event in Shanghai, with companies hoping to woo China’s growing middle class; a 400-million strong market, keen to spend on foreign technology, food and services.
An estimated 300,000 Chinese buyers are also expected to attend the event.
The Australian contingent, which includes Blackmores, Qantas, Coles and Tourism Australia, is led by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.
A visit from Australia's trade minister signals an end to Beijing’s one-year freeze on Australian state visits.
“I look to this as a positive opportunity to highlight China’s success, the strength of the Australia-China relationship and the areas in which we can continue to work constructively with China in the future," he said.
"We won’t always agree. No two mature countries always agree on every policy position, there are strategic challenges."
Debate over Chinese interference in Australian politics and education has strained diplomatic ties this past year, but Blackmores Asia managing director Peter Osborne said the trade relationship remains strong.
“I think Australia’s got an enviable reputation for our quality, for the natural ingredients that we have, and that’s how people see us,” he said.
But that reputation has suffered in China, says Diane Hu, who heads the department of Australian studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“I lot of people have said that we’re seeing a thaw in the tensions between the two countries, but I think we’re still very much in a cooling off or ‘wait and see’ period,” she said.
She warns that future trade with China may not come as easy as Australian businesses hope, saying she’s witnessed a worsening of public sentiment in both countries.
“A favourable perception is vital. You need to love a country, or at least like a country and trust a country to travel there and also feel confident and reassured enough to send your children there," she said.
"Chinese businesses are also perceiving or starting to perceive Australia as a less favourable destination for investment and also trade."
She said figures showing an increase in trade volume aren’t necessarily an accurate measure of relations.
“Areas like tourism and education are fast growing, so trade in these areas is bound to grow. The real question Australia needs to ask is whether our trade growth rate is slowing down. That will take time to discover and that’s what we’re researching now,” she said.
Australian Foreign Affairs Marise Payne will travel to Beijing at the end of this week to meet with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. It will be her first visit to China in her official capacity.